Monday, January 27, 2014

Honest to God, Part III

Somehow, New Mexico became the answer.

My dad was using an accounting degree he never wanted. A jazz trombonist, he had music—not numbers—in his blood. But his accountant father had dreams of “Hamby & Hamby” on the sign outside the firm in their southeast Texas town of Beaumont. He would only pay for college if my dad got an accounting degree. This is how my dad became a CPA against his will.

But forced careers will only get you so far. By the time he and my mom had a toddler, my dad needed another job. Something that wouldn’t kill him from the inside-out. There was only one vocation more noble than accounting to his father. If my dad went into ministry, he could escape the number-crunching and still have his father’s blessing. And a family friend knew of a church in New Mexico that needed a minister. So my parents sold their house, packed their stuff, and with a four-year-old in the backseat and me tucked away in my mother’s womb, they said goodbye to all four of my grandparents. Then they set off for a drive clear across Texas.

Parts of New Mexico are breathtaking. The ancestral puebloan ruins of Chaco Canyon in the northwest. The centuries-old churches of Santa Fe. The mountains of Taos that lie under a blanket of pristine snow. Stately mesas that line the horizon beneath a massive canopy of clean blue sky.

Lovington was near none of this. Lovington sulked away in the forgotten and lonely southeast corner of the state. The town smelled of stockyards and a soon-to-close oil refinery. The relentless wind kept a fresh layer of dirt on everything. There were a few elegant homes, which were a mystery to me since I couldn’t imagine how people got rich out there. Neighborhoods of poor to modest homes filled out the rest of the town. On the outskirts, Mexican migrant workers lived in trailers with rubber tires on top to keep the never-ending wind from blowing the roofs away. Decades later, a Lovington High School graduate named Brian Urlacher would become the NFL Rookie of the Year and finally bring a sense of pride to the town. But in 1971, Lovington had no one to cheer for; no future to hope in. Just dirt, wind, and a horizon that was too far away.

My parents rented a house on Birch Street, but the house wasn’t ready when they arrived in town. So my parents and four-year-old brother moved in with a family from their new church. Five months pregnant with me, my mother became ill with an ovarian cyst and, having just moved 700 miles away from her parents, had to be cared for by people she barely knew while my dad was at work. My mother had grown up the child of an Army officer, and she had come of age in exotic places like Panama and Japan. Now, as sharp pains shot across her swollen belly, she looked out the window of a stranger’s house and watched tumbleweeds roll down the street.

By the time I showed up and rounded us out to a family of four, my parents had moved into the rent house and Mom had made friends with a group of church women. They had all been pregnant, too, so the women gathered at each other’s houses and we babies rolled and crawled around on the floor.

My dad went to a mysterious place called “work” every morning. I don’t know when I realized he worked at our church. Our church was a red brick building with a steeple, which made it unusual: In the Church of Christ, many congregations view steeples as unnecessary ornamentation. My dad was the youth minister at our church. Youth ministry was new back then and there was no training in the area yet. No books, no models of youth ministry, no Christian rock bands. My dad knew only that he had grown to hate church as a teenager, and he wanted to make church more teen-friendly. He held after-church evening devotionals in which he dimmed the lights while youth group members sat in a circle on the floor of the fellowship hall and sang “Kumbaya.” The church elders learned of this practice and put a stop to it, saying singing on the floor in the dark could cause something called “emotionalism,” something the Church of Christ has traditionally feared.

My dad responded by moving these devotionals away from the church building so the elders would be less likely to find out what was going on. One night, the youth group went to a park and sat in a circle on the grass. I was a ridiculously cute three-year-old by then, and the teen girls argued over whose lap I would sit in. Settling into the winner’s lap, with the girl’s arms protecting mine from the cool wind, I looked up into southeast New Mexico’s only natural beauty—the clear night sky. It looked as though someone had flung a diamond-studded ebony sheet high above our heads. The youth group must have worn out “Kumbaya” because my dad began singing “How Great Thou Art.” The teens joined in, and when we got to the line about the rolling thunder and I still felt so safe in the girl’s arms beneath the enormous twinkling sky. I thought that if we could sing about thunder in such a beautiful setting, it might not be that scary after all.

If the night sky was Lovington’s only redeeming quality, the nearby town of Hobbs was its respite. You went to Hobbs if you wanted to go to McDonald’s or to see a doctor. I had been born in Hobbs since Lovington had no hospital. Hobbs also had a Kmart, a large car dealership, and a busy business district. We drove there every week for my brother’s piano lessons. If you needed something Hobbs couldn’t offer, such as surgery, or a prom dress that didn’t look like everyone else’s, you drove two-and-a-half hours to Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock was an actual city—a metropolitan oasis surrounded by dirt and cotton fields on the Llano Estacado of the Texas Panhandle. Lubbock had a giant mall with big department stores and a college people had actually heard of. We made a trip to Lubbock every November, and my dad carefully corralled my brother and me while my mom made secret purchases. A month later, we opened Christmas presents that could not have come from Lovington or Hobbs. I had heard Christmas presents came from the North Pole, but I suspected mine came from Lubbock, Texas.

What I did not know then was that my parents paid for those presents with my grandparents’ money. Our church elders believed ministers should only be paid what they need to provide for their families. Back in Beaumont, my dad’s accountant salary had put my parents in a nice house, on the guest lists of charitable events, and on the fringe of the town’s higher social circles. But now my grandparents paid for all the extras, such as Christmas presents, birthday presents, and piano lessons. Right before I turned three, a church in Hobbs made my dad a better offer, which included a four-bedroom brick parsonage. More than the money and the house, my dad was restless. Stuck with a vocation that was not his first choice, he seemed to find some contentment in a change of scenery. We made the familiar trip to Hobbs once more, but this time in a moving truck with everything we owned.

Moving somewhere, getting settled, and uprooting once again. We would repeat this succession of events four more times during my childhood. We stayed in one town only 18 months. We lived in another town twice. I don’t remember my mother ever complaining about the places my dad’s job had taken her, or the expectations that each congregation placed on her. When one church didn’t allow ministers’ wives to wear pants to church, she complied.

But my mother didn’t go along with everything. When our church would not allow me to have instrumental music as part of my wedding, she helped me find another church that would. And when people from church raised their eyebrows over this, she spoke up in my defense. I think she knew that some expectations of ministers and their families were reasonable, but there were lines that were not to be crossed. Even if church is your home, your life, and your air.


Post a Comment

<< Home